Desdemona by Toni Morrison



The story of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello is re-imagined by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, Malian singer and songwriter Rokia Traoré, and acclaimed stage director Peter Sellars. Morrison’s response to Sellars’ 2009 production of Othello is an intimate dialogue of words and music between Desdemona and her African nurse Barbary. Morrison gives voice and depth to the female characters, letting them speak and sing in the fullness of their hearts. Desdemona is an extraordinary narrative of words, music, and song about Shakespeare’s doomed heroine, who speaks from the grave about the traumas of race, class, gender, war — and the transformative power of love. Toni Morrison transports one of the most iconic, central, and disturbing treatments of race in Western culture into the new realities and potential outcomes facing a rising generation of the 21st century. 

My Thoughts

My name is Desdemona. The word, Desdemona, means misery. It means ill-fated. It means doomed. 

This play is based on William Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s been a few years since I last read Othello. It wasn’t a very pleasure-able read since I had to read it for class, but I do remember enjoying it.

If you’ve never read Othello, here’s a super short summary. Othello is a tragedy set in Venice. The play revolves around two characters Othello and his wife Desdemona. Othello is a Moorish general of the Venetian army, and his wife is the daughter of a senator. Iago who serves under Othello, who also hates Othello and Roderigo who is upset that Othello has married Desdemona conspire and scheme against Othello. Their scheming leads Othello to kill Desdemona and then himself. The whole play spans two days.

Desdemona focuses on Othello’s wife. It’s less about her side of the story and more about her life and feelings of being a wife and woman. What I also enjoyed about this play was that it gave a voice to people in the play who didn’t in the original.

Toni Morrison also gave voice to the dead. This was a part of the play I found to be the strongest. The dead being able to finally express all the thoughts they couldn’t while alive. Also, Morrison was able to give us backstory and histories to these characters.

In the original play, Desdemona is seen as being divine perfection. Toni Morrison didn’t see her as being a divine being but as a woman. In this play, Desdemona isn’t a naive girl, but a mature woman who is finally able to speak, reveal secrets, hopes, dreams, and her own imperfections. Toni Morrison made her human.

As a whole, I enjoyed this play. 

There are so many poignant passages. So many that were beautiful, amazing, and relatable. Truly, I expected nothing less from Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison took the themes from the original play and expounded on it, which I freaking loved. The themes of love, racism, marriage, love, brotherhood, womanhood, society, slavery, and feminism. Morrison tackled all of that in a play that took me only 25 minutes to read.

Toni Morrison touched on so many themes in this short play, but there was just so much that was left unsaid. So many themes that I wanted her to further talk about. Honestly, I just wanted more. So much more.

I wish I could have seen this play live. The book was good, but I know it would have been absolutely breathtaking live. In between the play, are the lyrics to songs. This play on stage was accompanied by music, which is why there are lyrics, btw. Every single song was beautiful, but I found that sometimes they took me out of the story. Which was frustrating, but at the same time I couldn’t help but be amazed at how beautiful the lyrics were.

All in all, I really liked this play. It was poignant and beautiful, but it left me wanting more. This play is unique and it will not work for everyone, but I recommend it. Especially, if you’ve have read the original play.

Now I will leave you with my favorite quote:

Did you think loving another was a profit-driven harvest: choosing the ripe and discarding the rot? Love is complete, whole, fearless; otherwise it is merely a banquet, a feast planned to sate a hunger for variety, not commitment to one choice. Honest love does not cringe at the first roll of thunder; nor does it flinch when faced with the lightning flash of human sin. I always knew you were caressing me with fingers hardened by swords and that your hands stroking my breasts also drew blood. ”

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